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Memory and

Personal Identity

The Memory Theory of

Personal Identity
• John Locke asked: “wherein memory
– Not sameness of soul or body
– But “as far as . . . Consciousness can be extended
backwards to any past action or thought, so far
reaches the identity of that person”

• Idea of self-identity defined in terms of sequence of

linked memories

Episodic Memory and
Personal Identity
• Hume: what we are is a bundle of memories—where
memories are episodic memories of life episodes.

• What memories seem critical to self identity?

– If we lost these memories, would we be the same
– If someone replaced many of these memories with
others, would we still be the same person?

• Patients who lose memory of their past lives (like GR)

report a loss of identity

• Is this kind of memory unique to humans?

H. M.
• Bilateral resection of hippocampus and surrounding
cortex in 1953 at age 29 for intractable epilepsy

H. M.
• No effect on IQ,
personality, etc.
• Graded retrograde
amnesia for several years
prior to surgery
• Anterograde amnesia
• Can learn new skills
(such as mirror tracing)

Being H. M.
• H.M. likes detective shows, doing crosswords, and watching
TV. However, it is impossible for him to make new friends as he
cannot remember a person for any longer than ten minutes. He
lives in a world where, for him, Truman is still President. When
he is told again of his mother's death evokes the same painful
grief for a short period of time, and then, it is gone. He never
really knows exactly how old he is, but reckons that he is about
30. When he looks into a mirror, he is shocked by the reflection.
• He comments on his situation:
– “... what I keep thinking is that possibly I had an operation.
And somehow the memory is gone... and I'm trying to figure
it out... I think of it all the time. I don't remember this, and
why I don't remember that... It isn't worrisome in a way, to
me, because I know that if they ever performed an operation
on me, they'd learn from it. It would help others.”

Forgetting our Episodic
• Marigold Linton: self study of the natural history
of memories
– Over 6 years Linton daily wrote down brief descriptions
of events from her life (5,500 items)
• Challenge: to write events down briefly yet retain
distinctiveness after first time for event (first trip to
– Monthly pairs of items were drawn semi-randomly from
the event pool (totaling about 150 items per month)
• Tried to place them in proper chronological order
• Tried to reconstruct each item’s date
• Briefly noted her memory search strategy
Reevaluated each items salience

Forgetting, failing to discriminate, etc.

During the forth year, “I began to encounter a few old
items that simply did not ‘make sense’. . . . [I]tems
that I could interpret meaningfully shortly after they
were written did not, at the time of the crucial test,
permit me to reconstruct a sensible whole.”
– Rate of forgetting: after first year (<1%), flat curve
– A common way Linton “forgot”
events was by losing the ability
to discriminate the memory of
one event from another—sometimes
yielding only a general memory
of a type of episode

Effect of frequency of event type on
semantic/episodic character of memory
• “Number of trials (or experiences) has contrastive
effects on episodic and semantic memories.
Increased experience with any particular event class
increases semantic (or general) knowledge about the
event and its context. Increased experience with
similar events, however, makes specific episodic
knowledge increasingly confusable, and ultimately
episodes cannot be distinguished.” (Linton, 1982, p.

From Semantic to
Episodic to Semantic
“It seems plausible that a fairly small number of general schemes
provide the basic framework for storing episodic information.
These schemes organize the event in terms of actors, action,
location, and the like. These elements that comprise the building
blocks of episodic memories are themselves information from our
semantic store. . . . A specific event is a unique configuration of
these elements. As our experience with a particular event type
increases, we seem at first to make finer discriminations among
related events. . . . At some point, however, this expansion of
elements and configuration ends. . . . As similar events are
repeated, the specific configurations—the patterns that link
familiar elements to form unique episodes—themselves become a
well-established potentially confusable part of semantic
knowledge.” (Linton, 1982, p. 81)

Emotion in Linton’s self study
• Evaluated emotional salience at initial writing and each recall
–Very low correlation between initial emotional salience and
later success in recall
–Change in emotional salience from encoding to recall
• Habituation of emotional response if event type repeated
(including response to memory of initial events)
• Later changes in judgment depending on what followed:
“Just as historians must interpret and rewrite history as
time passes, so we all rewrite out own personal histories.
Few of us are wise enough to be able to predict at the time
of their occurrence how significant events will prove to be.”
(Linton, 1982, p. 88).
–Did the new person we met become a lover/spouse?
–Did you accept the job offer or not?

Condensation in
Autobiographical Memory
• Larry Barsalou tried to elicit autobiographical
• memories about their summer vacation from
– Spent only 21% of the time reporting specific events
– Much of the time spent summarizing events
• I went to a lot of movies
• We often just hung out at the mall
– Even when constrained to only report events,
subjects kept summarizing
• And had a difficult time recalling specific events
• Condensed memories: group episodes from many
different events into one

Building Autobiographies
Marya Schechtman (1994):
• “Psychological continuity theorists see
memory as adding to the constitution of
identity brick by brick, as it were, each
individual memory adding one more bit of connection
until there is enough to say there is sameness”
• “the fact of being a rememberer—of having the sort
of memory system I do—allows me to see myself as
a creature with a past, and so allows me to have the
sort of psychology which makes me a person.
Furthermore, the fact of having the particular
memories I have, processed as I process them, is
what makes me the particular person I am”

Eileen Franklin’s Recovered

While George Fanklin is driving his daughter Eileen to school,
they come across her friend Susan and give her a ride. Instead
of going to school, Franklin drives his minibus drives down to
Half Moon Bay, stopping in the woods. Eileen and Susan play
in the minibus with Franklin gets inside the minibus and starts
playing with them. Eileen is in the front seat when she sees her
dad climb on top of Susan Nason. "My father pinned Susan to
the floor. His legs pointed towards me and he held her arms
spread out. He leaned on his elbows that were up against his,
eh...body, he started rubbing against her, eh... rubbing, up and
down... and eh, ...he kept on doing this until I climbed over the
passenger seat to see what they were doing. I got really scared
when I looked at Susan's face."

Constructive Memory, False
Memory, and Personal Identity

Much of our personal identity is grounded in our

memories—what we have done, how we have reacted, etc.

What implications are there from research showing that

memories are not simply a replaying of the past but
constructs, sometimes false ones?

Eileen Franklin’s Recovered

Eileen reports she tried to make herself invisible until her
father stopped. Then she and Susan get out of the minibus.
Susan walks up to a rock where she tries to sit down. Eileen
stays next to the minibus and picks up a leaf. When she
looks up she sees the autumn sun shining through the trees.
Behind Susan appears the shadow of a man who holds a
large rock above his head. Susan raises her arms to protect
herself. She looks at Eileen. Her eyes are filled with fear and
powerlessness. A few seconds later the rock crushes Susan's
skull. Eileen puts her hands against her ears to block out the
sound of breaking bone.

Eileen and George Franklin
In 1989 and 1990 Eileen Franklin recovered memories of her
father murdering her 8 year old girlfriend, Susan Nason, in 1969.
• Eileen also remembered seeing him murder a woman in
1976 in an unrelated incident.
• George Franklin was convicted of the 1969 murder.
• DNA tests later showed George Franklin innocent
• Evidence subsequently found accounted for all of George’s
time on the day in question
At various points Eileen claimed her memories occurred
• In a dream
• Under hypnosis during therapy (she denied this at trial, but
her sister later admitted that they lied about not being
• While looking at her 5 year hold daughter

Discrepancies in Eileen
Franklin’s memory
Eileen remembered that she and Susan had played hooky from
school on the day of the murder
• Susan had gone to school that day and had returned home and
talked to her mother at 3 PM.
Eileen remembered her father taking a mattress from the back of the
van and covering Susan’s body with it
• A newspaper account mentioned a mattress
• The murderer had covered the body with a box spring (or
couch?) too large to fit into her father's van
Eileen remembered that Susan was wearing a “silver ring with a
stone in it”
• Such a ring was described in a newspaper account at the time
• Ellen was wearing two rings: one plain silver ring and a gold
ring with a topaz

Where did Eileen’s memory
come from?

Much of what Eileen testified to had been reported

(sometimes erroneously) in newspaper accounts
Having read such accounts, Eileen may have constructed false

Self: More than Autobiographical

• Neisser: five selves
– Ecological—perspectival relations to an
environment, especially via perception
– Interpersonal—specific relations to
other organisms, especially kin
– Extended—episodic memory
(time-travel) (autobiography)
– Private—qualitative experiences and
private soliloquies
– Conceptual—self representation, including
constructed biography